Getting to Me

After the whole Laramie cast saw part one of Angels in America this past week, we got the wonderful opportunity to have dinner with the cast of the show and ask them a little bit about the process that they went through to produce it. I asked a question that went a little something like this:

“Obviously, both Laramie and Angels in America are plays that are grounded in real-world crises, one in hate-crimes and the other in AIDS. They’re intensely emotional in a very concrete, very un-abstract sort of way. And this is definitely the first time that I have ever done theatre like this. So my question is, as actors, how much do you let it get to you? How much do you let it get to you not as a character, but as a person?”

To be quite frank, what I really should have asked them, were I being perfectly honest, would have been something more like this:

“This show is getting to me way too much. I’m too invested in this. Help me?”

I came to the realization that this was the case when I was doing my dramaturgical research (for those who don’t know, that means research pertaining to the play, characters, etc.) for the individual meetings that we had with Jeff, our director.

Probably the most important role that I play in the show is the role of Dennis Shepard, Matthew’s father. In the show, his only monologue is his in-court statement acquitting Aaron McKinney from the death penalty, but it is a powerful monologue that really knocks the wind out of you as an actor.

So I was in Perkins library (for the non-Dukies reading this, that’s our main library on campus) researching Dennis Shepard—who it turns out was an oil executive who worked in Saudi Arabia, not a country man who lived in Laramie—and I came across a video of the speech that he made along with his wife Judy at the 2009 HRC National Dinner (whose other notable guests were Barack Obama and Lady Gaga.) At any rate, he and Judy were honored with the first inaugural Edward M. Kennedy Leadership Award for their work in forwarding legislation that prevents hate crimes on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, and they made a speech. The video starts with Judy and Dennis walking on stage and receiving the plaque in front of a standing ovation, tears sparkling in not only their eyes, but the eyes of seemingly every member of the audience. Judy says a few words, and then Dennis takes the microphone, seemingly unable to speak through his emotion:

“Nine years ago I spoke at the dinner, and I said, Matthew is not our gay son, he is our son. Judy has been a martyr doing this, she has basically done this by herself, but with President Obama’s support, the bill will be signed, and then my statement will only be, ‘Matthew was our son.’ Thank you.”

You should really watch the video for yourself, because a transcription doesn’t fully embrace the weight of Dennis’ words.

So I’m watching this video in Perkins, and I realize pretty quickly that I must look rather odd, seeing as it’s not everyday that you see someone sobbing in the library, especially not for an hour. For whatever reason, I couldn’t let that speech go, I can’t let Dennis go. I can’t. And to be honest, I’m terrified of playing the part of Dennis Shepard, because I don’t know how I can possibly do it justice. I just can’t help but see my own father in him, wishing that all fathers could be more like Dennis, wondering whether Matthew got to feel his father’s affirmation and love while he was alive, wondering how many gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people never hear that sort of affirmation from their fathers, even in death. I can’t help but get goose bumps every time I think about it.

Laramie—this town, these people, this story, this play—it’s getting to me.

One thought on “Getting to Me

  1. I hear you. I don’t think it’s revealing anything too private to tell you that as we were looking over video clips with Alex in a design meeting this week, Jeff was reading from Dennis speech and got choked up when he got to the line about the “ever present Wyoming wind.” Blinking back tears he said, “My goodness. How long have I been thinking about this play and it still has such an effect on me.” So you are by no means alone in your sentiments about the piece “getting to” you.

    And I think you know from what Jeff has said to you in your character session and in front of the entire class that there is tremendous confidence in your ability to portray Dennis Shepard. (I think you’re doing a smashing job with your other roles as well; I was particularly taken with how you and Summer really dove into the scene between Steven Belber (Ben) and you all as friends of Aaron McKinney.) It’s safe to say that Dennis has the highest public profile from all your roles. And I think one of the reasons his speech is so moving is that it came a bit late. Even though he says — in the full text of his statement to the court — that he was able to have a recent moment, before Matthew died, to tell him how much he thought of him:

    “I now feel very fortunate that I was able to spend some private time with Matt last summer during my vacation from Saudi Arabia. We sat and talked. I told Matt that he was my hero and that he was the toughest man that I had ever known. When I said that, I bowed down to him out of respect for his ability to continue to smile and keep a positive attitude during all the trials and tribulations that he had gone through. He just laughed. I also told him how proud I was because of what he had accomplished and what he was trying to accomplish. The last thing I said to Matt was that I loved him, and he said he loved me. That was the last private conversation that I ever had with him.”

    But from what I’ve found from Romaine’s memoir and other reporting, Dennis was conflicted about Matthew’s sexuality during his son’s lifetime. When interviewed by Vanity Fair in 1999, Judy Shepard (Dennis is not quoted directly) remembers Matthew’s coming out to his father like this:

    “It was more difficult for Matthew to tell his father, whom he had always looked up to. “He and Dennis danced around it for a year,” his mother recalls. “It was a guy thing. Dennis would say to me, ‘Why doesn’t he tell me?’ Maybe in retrospect this wasn’t the right decision, but Dennis didn’t want to ask him before Matt was ready to tell him. Matt made it so much worse by building it up in his mind and causing himself all that anxiety. This was one of his real flaws. He would invent a scenario and it would be the worst possible scenario. The thing that hurt Dennis the most about it was Matt’s reluctance to confide in him.”

    I know that Kaufman and TTP had to make cuts but there’s the most I’ve really seen about their relationship in Dennis’ full statement to the court. Like this section which seems to echo Judy’s description of the coming out process for son and father:

    “Because my job involved lots of travel, I never had the same give-and-take with Matt that Judy had. Our relationship at times was strained. But, whenever he had problems we talked. For example, he was unsure about revealing to me that he was gay. He was afraid that I would reject him immediately, so it took him a while to tell me. By that time, his mother and brother had already been told. One day he said that he had something to say. I could see that he was nervous, so I asked him if everything was all right. Matt took a deep breath and told me that he was gay. Then he waited for my reaction. I still remember his surprise when I said, “Yeah? OK, but what’s the point of this conversation?” Then everything was OK. We went back to a father and son who loved each other and respected the beliefs of the other. We were father and son, but we were also friends.”

    In that previously referenced Vanity Fair interview, Judy comments on how Matt’s rape in Morocco (while on a senior class trip) changed his personality and his relationship with his parents. All of this came around the time he came out so all of that mixed together must have been an influence on family dynamics. And to be half-way around the world as your child struggles with depression, paranoia, a sexual life in a couple of places (North Carolina and Wyoming) that aren’t known for their tolerance, couldn’t have been easy. Also, just FYI, three weeks after Matthew’s memorial, Dennis Shepard’s own father passed away after a short illness which resulted in a coma. Not that you need anything more in your brainpan as you deliver that speech.

    Your post has also made me think about the people who identify themselves as parents in the play and who remind us of the relatively young age of Matthew and his murderers: Bill McKinney, who has a brief unsympathetic statement; one rancher who invokes his children in a short diatribe about how homosexuals are ‘animals’; Doc Cantway, who talks about tending to both boys’ wounds; Marge as Reggie’s mom who worries about her daughter’s HIV exposure and subsequent preventative treatment, and Reggie who talks about her daughters learning through her experiences the risks that come with being a police officers; and Dennis. Am I missing anyone? Oh, and Aaron McKinney who worries that his actions will mean he never sees his son again. Such is another tragic link he shares with Dennis and its another example of how this act of violence knits the disparate elements of the Laramie community together forever. Its also another layer — the parent/child relationship — that this play really gets to me.

    — Jules

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